words and images: Sean Lamont
As the new year arrives, many of us are looking at ways to improve our lives, from eating better to exercising more. Last year, as writer Sean Lamont faced a daunting drive to work, he decided to turn things around, and that began by selling his truck. This is his story.
Northwest Arkansas is my beloved, adopted home. I extol its virtues to family and visitors, remarking on its scenic splendor, robust economy, numerous eateries and easy-going charm. However, there is one true detriment to the region. I work for that large retail concern with its main offices in Bentonville, but I live in Fayetteville (Long may it stay funky!). Connecting the two is a linear expression of anxiety and despair called I-49, which is constantly in a state of disrepair from efforts to extend and reform it. Each morning, a brief window of calm descends upon this highway, but you have to start early to find it. Too late a start, and the tens of thousands of commuters, navigating this single main artery to Bentonville, turn driving into a white-knuckled exercise in self-restraint. Each evening, without fail, the highway becomes a slowly migrating herd of automobiles.
In May 2017, in an act of brazen masochism, I Googled how many business days are in a year. The answer was 260 for 2017. Doubling that, for the AM Northward and PM Southward trips, I realized I was looking at 520 commutes, annually. More than half a thousand trips on a freeway that looked more like a semi-immobilized parking lot was more than I could reasonably bear. I had to do something dramatically different. I probably could have changed routes, used the less traveled highways, or rescheduled my day to avoid the most egregious traffic congestion. Instead, I sold my truck, mapped a route of side streets and byways and commuted, daily, for the next four months on a 50 cc Ruckus scooter, logging in that span more than 3,000 miles.
The pros to commuting by scooter are many. It does not require license plates or, in fact, an operator’s license to use on the street. Fayetteville’s ordinances mandate them to be insured but elsewhere, this is not a requirement. My Ruckus averaged around 100 miles per gallon of gas. A scooter is an economical mode of transportation with a tiny ecological footprint compared to even the most efficient car. They are extremely easy to operate. Unlike a motorcycle with its hand clutch and foot lever transmission, a scooter requires you to twist the throttle and apply the hand brakes. It is, essentially, a motorized bar stool. And it is great fun. Imagine a grown man in suit and tie en-route to the office on a tiny scooter zipping merrily along neighborhood streets and country roads. As for my experience, the smiles and waves were frequent and friendly from other motorists, and never did I encounter a negative word.
Additionally, a 50 cc scooter is about the most minimalist form of internally combustion powered locomotion available. The rider is in the environment, not simply moving through it. When it rained, I quickly donned a rain suit or simply accepted the dampness as part of the journey. When sunny, I applied a high value SPF to avoid burning skin in the abundant Arkansas sunshine. The engine is very quiet, and I happened upon deer, fox, raccoons, possums, coyotes, and, of course, armadillos in my travels, getting quite close before they leapt or scurried away. And there are abundant herds of cows between my home and office, including, for a brief while, Belted Galloways. Scooters are an oddity to cows, I surmised, given the bovine curiosity they displayed as I quietly motored by. Belted Galloways, if you’re not familiar, are a breed of cattle that, with their black fore and aft and a white belt of color round their middles, resemble four-legged Oreo cookies. They are a visual delight.
June, July, August, and September, I scootered about fifty miles daily. And in that pursuit, there were a few cons, as well. A 50 cc scooter’s top speed is about forty miles per hour, but so many of our steep Arkansas hills slowed that speed considerably. One cannot be in a rush. Perhaps, that is both pro and con—there is an additional time investment in the commute but there is a concurrent strengthening of the virtue of patience. Actually, the additional time consumed is the only firm con that occurs to me from this endeavor.
I’m not suggesting this sort of solution is feasible for everyone. It would be verging toward the impossible to scooter children to daycare, for instance. If one’s dress code did not allow for casual attire, a scooter commute would prove difficult, or if one’s vocation required carrying heavy or bulky wares or tools, it would be flat-out impossible.
What I am vehemently asserting, though, is that the sterility, banality, frustration and undue stress of the freeway commute is not without alternatives. Mine, I enjoy believing, was an economical, environmentally-friendly and whimsically non-conformist alternative. Treasures, like the day when that hay field was newly mown, and I spent a mile or so breathing the fresh-cut grasses, are mine to examine in memory’s museum.
One evening a red fox ran across the street in front of me and then turned around in a front yard to watch my progress with cunning and intelligent eyes as its tall ears subtly twitched attentively. It was one of the most beautiful wild creatures I have seen, all the more poignant for its wildness, surrounded by the domesticity of a subdivision. Such experiences are not available at seventy miles an hour, jockeying for position before the next exit on the freeway.
The old saw is “All roads lead to Rome,” and I remind you that with enough turns, all roads lead everywhere. I encourage you to choose one with a slower speed limit from time to time, so you can enjoy all the countryside we have in Arkansas, on either side of the freeway.